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André's father, Boris Rousimoff, migrated to France from Bulgaria in 1934. A fellow farmworker who had himself emigrated from Poland introduced Boris to his sister, Marianne, and in 1938, the two married. A small, sturdy woman with the figure of a fire hydrant and wild frizzy hair, she quickly presented Boris with children, beginning with Antoine and Hélène.
The family struggled as World War II wreaked havoc on the European continent, but somehow, they managed to survive. André Rene was born on May 19, 1946, followed shortly thereafter by Mauricette and Jacques.
A hale and hearty man over six feet, Boris built his family a home in Molien, a bucolic farming village approximately forty miles outside Paris. It was just a small farm, but it was fertile and productive enough to feed the Rousimoffs.
Known as Dédé from his little sister Mauricette's mispronunciation of his name, André was a handsome boy, baby-faced and charming. But as he got older, he kept growing and growing, his jaw and forehead becoming distorted in appearance. Though it was clear that there was something unusual about the boy, his condition went undiagnosed by the country doctors.
André was sent to school in nearby Ussy-sur-Marne. Having grown up on the farm, with only his family for companionship, André loved going to school, especially the social aspect of being around people. Many years later, during production of The Princess Bride, André would tell stories of how the Nobel Prize-winning playwright Samuel Beckett used to pick him up when he would hitchhike to school.
Circumstances forced him to abandon his education at the age of eleven, at which time he joined his father and brother at work on the farm. As he entered his teens, André was well over six feet tall, with the physical appearance of a fully grown man. He was strong and athletic and, like all French boys, loved playing soccer. At the age of eighteen, André made the acquaintance of a local wrestling promoter who saw beaucoup francs in the oversize young man. He introduced André to the art of le catch, and the young athlete soon began wrestling around Paris and its environs. He adopted the ring name of "Geant Ferre" after a mythical French giant à la Paul Bunyan which soon became "Jean Ferre."
In 1966, André was befriended by Frank Valois, a Montreal-born wrestler and promoter. Valois became André's most trusted adviser and business manager, finding his charge work wrestling throughout Europe, including Germany and England. It was around the same time that André first met British wrestler and future World Wrestling Federation commentator Lord Alfred Hayes. Years later, Hayes would recall his first encounter with André and the friendship that blossomed between the two men in a witty and touching essay published in the official company publication.
BOUND FOR GLORY...
by Lord Alfred Hayes
ALTHOUGH ENGLAND AND FRANCE HAVE PRODUCED MANY, MANY FINE WRESTLERS, ONE COUNTRY HOLDS THE HONOR FOR HAVING GIVEN BIRTH TO THE MOST INCREDIBLE WRESTLER THE WORLD HAS EVER SEEN. THIS COUNTRY, OF COURSE, IS FRANCE, AND THE TREMENDOUS UNDERSTATEMENT I HAVE JUST MADE WHEN I REFER TO AN INCREDIBLE WRESTLER IS SPECIFICALLY BOUND TO ANDRÉ THE GIANT. WHEN ONE TALKS ABOUT ANDRÉ THE GIANT, ONE ALSO TALKS OF NOT JUST THE GREATEST PROFESSIONAL WRESTLER OF ALL TIME, BUT ALSO THE GREATEST PROFESSIONAL ATHLETE THAT HAS EVER LIVED. I WONDER IF WE WILL EVER SEE THE LIKES OF SUCH A PERSON IN PROFESSIONAL ATHLETICS AGAIN.
I had made my wrestling headquarters in the comfy district of Place Blanche, which lies within the shadow of the hill of Montmartre. One day before departing for a wrestling engagement at a town near LeMans racecourse, the French wrestling promoter, Maurice Duran, phoned me and asked if I would pick up a young wrestler who would be waiting for me at the Porte-de-Versaille, one of the Gates of Paris. My response was of course, I would be delighted to. In those days as indeed now, I enjoyed impressing upon young rookies how to mind their manners and become decent people without swollen heads. Here was my chance to really give this young French wrestler an earful of my "puritanical moralizing."
With this pleasant thought in mind, I proceeded to the rendezvous where I would pick up this young lad. Imagine my surprise upon reaching my destination and discovering a raw-boned seventeen-year-old French youth who stood almost seven feet tall and grinned at me in the most disarming manner. He spoke no English, which may have been a blessing had I not spoken French. Upon discovering that I could speak French, he immediately began to lecture me! He would gesticulate with each sentence, almost causing a major disaster with practically every turn of the wheel. His booming laughter came from deep down in his stomach and filled my small European car with such decibels of noise, I really thought my eardrums would burst! It suddenly dawned on me this "boy" was not ordinary, either mentally or physically.
Eyeing him slyly, I inquired if he knew who his opponent would be that evening. "I know his name," he replied. "His name is Jacques Ducrez."
"But do you know anything about this man?" I persisted.
"No," he said, "I do not," and quite honestly, he did not seem to care.
"Jacques Ducrez," I said, "is probably the cruelest wrestler in the whole of France. He is a black-hearted man who knows no mercy and will coldly strike you down. He will probably take a mere kid like you and finish your wrestling career with one hold."
Naturally I expected such a young person to at least show some apprehension. However, André looked at me, laughed, and then with a wink of one of his bright eyes said, "You are amusing me, please continue."
From that moment on I had the feeling I was chauffeuring a young athlete who was definitely destined for fame, and whose mother country, France, was certainly not big enough to contain his irresistible spirit to say nothing of his huge dimensions.
Many people talk about the miracle of André the Giant, some few people, myself fortunate to be amongst them, have had the luck to be close to his development, and yet this miracle that is André definitely seems to have an almost fairy(tale)-like quality to me. I say almost because it is a positive fact that André the Giant does exist. Watching him the other evening destroy two men with a single blow, one knows his existence is indelibly printed into the annals of professional wrestling.
Born in Grenoble, his father a French mountaineer and his mother coming from a noble Bulgarian family, his childhood environment equipped him adequately for the strenuous life of the professional wrestler.... His reputation as a fair and just wrestler is without blemish. His massive size and strength have already made him legendary and here indeed is the perfect example of a "hero" who has become a legend in his own lifetime.
When André travels to countries where one might think he would go in trepidation, it is the other way around. When André is touring Japan, top wrestlers suddenly find time for vacationing or perhaps visiting Mama.
One might ask, is it possible that here in André the Giant is an invincible wrestler. An improbable task for anybody to overcome his advantage in weight, strength, size and skill. I would have to answer this is probably a correct assumption. However, Lady Luck has not always been the companion of our towering superman. It has always been difficult for André to obtain world championships, and one can understand the reason why.
Many shrewd critics of wrestling still expect this giant warrior to eventually realize that one horizon which until this moment has escaped him. For myself, I can now sit back in relief, comparative safety, and observe with much pleasure André's forays into the ranks of professional wrestling. Good luck to you André, may you achieve that happiness and pride that only a world championship can give its holder. You are truly a man admired by men. You are an example for every sportsperson to follow. I am proud to be considered your friend.
In 1969, André ventured off the European continent to wrestle in New Zealand under the name Monster Eiffel Tower. The following year saw his Japanese debut, wrestling for Isao Yoshihara's International Wrestling Enterprises (the country's number two promotion behind Japan Pro Wrestling Association). Billed as Monster Rousimoff, André wrestled as both a singles competitor as well as in a tag team with European wrestler Michael Nador. The partnership was instantly successful: on January 18, 1970, Monster Rousimoff & Michael Nador defeated Thunder Sugiyama & Great Kusatsu in Fukoka, Japan, to win IWE World Tag Team Championships.
While he was wrestling in Japan, a doctor informed André that his unusual size was the result of acromegaly, a rare hormonal disorder caused by a benign tumor of the pituitary gland. The tumor spurs overproduction of growth hormones, leading to an altered facial appearance and enlargement of the hands and feet. If the tumor develops before bone growth is completed in adolescence, the result will be gigantism.
Unfortunately for André, the discovery of his acromegaly came too late to prevent many of its symptoms. Worse yet, André was advised that acromegaly sufferers were generally lucky to reach forty. He told no one about the diagnosis, and those friends closest to him believe that it was the knowledge of his shortened lifespan that drove André to indulge freely in his many appetites.
André was not the first wrestler to suffer from acromegaly. Maurice Tillet the French Angel was a star in the early days of professional wrestling. He developed acromegaly in his twenties, and as a result, his whole body was disfigured. Seeking a new identity to fit his chronic disfigurement, Tillet headed to America, where he was dubbed the "freak ogre of the ring."
So too did André head to North America in his case, to French- speaking Quebec and the Montreal-based promotion Grand Prix Wrestling. Known as "the Eighth Wonder of the World," he quickly made a name for himself based on his size, his cheerful personality, and his surprising agility in the ring (especially his ability to do dropkicks).
The seven-foot-tall André, billed as Jean Ferre, became an in demand attraction throughout the territory. He was usually booked in three-on-two matches alongside Grand Prix's Eduardo Carpentier, or in Handicap matches against two unlucky opponents. As a singles wrestler, he went toe-to-toe with some of the era's biggest heels, including Killer Kowalski and Butcher Vachon.
André also continued to wrestle in Japan. Competing as Giant Rousimoff, André won IWE's Third World Series tournament, defeating such legends of the sport as Karl Gotch and Billy Robinson.
His remarkable appearance and unique charisma quickly made André a top star. He was named 1971's Rookie of the Year by Wrestling Yearbook 1972, a publication affiliated with the popular Inside Wrestling and The Wrestler.
In 1972, Le Geant Jean Ferre entered his first high-profile program, feuding with one of wrestling's top big men, the six-foot-nine Mormon Giant, Don Leo Jonathan. The two behemoths battled frequently, culminating on May 31, 1972, in "The Match of the Century" at Montreal Forum. The "Battle of the Giants" André's first main event set Canada's indoor wrestling attendance and gate record with more than 20,000 fans in the Forum. In the finish, André was DQed after he lost his temper and wrapped his enormous hands around Jonathan's throat. The rest of the locker room ran into the ring to stop him, but André threw them all aside. The match defined André's gimmick for years to come he's a sweet guy, but if you get him mad, nothing can stop him.
DON MURACO: "Don Leo Jonathan was about six foot six inches, 320. He was a giant of a man in his own right. Could do nip-ups, tight-rope walk on the top rope. He was a 220-pound worker in a 325-pound body. I'm sure he had a lot to do with André's progression as far as working."
Also in 1972 André ventured more and more into the United States, wrestling as a special attraction on a number of American Wrestling Association cards. But after three years in Montreal, the novelty had begun to wear off. André had taken on all of the territory's biggest wrestlers and beaten them all. Moreover, the thrill of seeing a wrestler of such dramatic size had been burned out by overexposure.
Frank Valois still believed that André had a brilliant career ahead of him. To try and revive the young wrestler's profile, he reached out to a man whose booking expertise was considered the best in the business Vincent J. McMahon of World Wide Wrestling Federation. © Michael Krugman 2009